Wayne Rooney embracing a new chapter at Derby County
Sitting mid-table in the Championship at this stage of the season would generally be considered an unremarkable campaign for a club like Derby County. However, it will already be remembered as one of the most defining in recent history for the events that have occurred on and off the field, culminating in the arrival of England legend Wayne Rooney.
The only team currently below Derby County in the table that can match their current form over the course of the last six games are Stoke City, and the Rams comprehensively took them apart on Friday night with a 4-0 victory at Pride Park.
Rooney found himself in direct competition with Joe Allen, and orchestrated matters in the middle of midfield with his vision and technical ability, while also chipping in with a goal from a free-kick to show that his prowess in attack remains as formidable as ever.
Drifting away from the persistent Allen as the match slipped further away from Stoke, Rooney showed a creative side to his game that has often been overlooked.
Tough times on and off the field
If a dreadful start to the season and his managerial tenure wasn't enough, new Derby County boss Phillip Cocu was cornered into a difficult position early in the campaign as controversy tested the moral compass of the club.
The decision to part company with captain Richard Keogh but retain the services of Tom Lawrence and Mason Bennett, despite their direct involvement in the well-documented drink-driving incident that resulted in the club coming under national scrutiny, had a significant effect on the changing room, and it was naturally difficult to focus on football matters.
Inconsistent and generally poor results coincided with the dark clouds that hovered over Pride Park in the subsequent weeks. The club became a target for the media, while Lawrence was singled out by opposition fans for his role in the controversy after returning to being a regular in the starting line-up.
However, the club had made the decision to support him through this difficult personal period. And the Wales international responded positively by repaying the faith that his employers had shown in him, despite public pressure to do the opposite.
The Lampard comparison
Results will ultimately define the spirit that exists within in a club. The disappointment of missing out on Premier League promotion in the play-off final last season had been replaced with optimism during the summer months with the belief that the club could go one better, and build on the work of former boss Frank Lampard before his switch to Chelsea.
Expectations were high and the bar had been set. But a slow start immediately brought pressure upon Cocu, before the regrettable incident that changed the atmosphere amongst the squad and took the attention away from events on the field.
Difficult times require drastic action, especially when expectations demand more, and one of the most defining moments in the history of the club occurred as the dust began to settle. Following a sabbatical away from the pressure and scrutiny of the English media, Wayne Rooney brought to an end his time in Major League Soccer.
Enjoying the relative anonymity of playing in the United States, the Manchester United and England legend made the decision to take his first steps into coaching. And it was Derby County who seized on the opportunity to raise the profile of the club in the same way that Lampard had attracted national attention the year before.
Although their time together was relatively brief, the appointment of Lampard changed the image of the club, and it was an image and profile that was missed following his departure to Stamford Bridge.
Cocu is a well-respected figure in the European game, and his playing career alone made him an intriguing appointment at a time when the club had a big decision to make. Lampard’s name and the work he had done at Pride Park set a high standard, and it was imperative that the club found the balance between profile and performance in their next appointment.
With over 100 appearances for the Netherlands and six seasons at the Camp Nou with Barcelona, Cocu, 49, has the ambition to build on what he has already achieved in his coaching career. He has spent the majority of the last decade at PSV Eindhoven, and there was comfort in the familiarity of it having previously represented the club as a player during two separate spells.
Cocu will share Derby County's ambition of reaching the Premier League, and he will welcome the arrival of Rooney to help him achieve his aim, rather than see his signing as a potential replacement if things do not go to plan. Despite his playing career, Rooney still has a long way to go to prove himself as a coach.
With a turbulent campaign at the mid-way point, the arrival of Rooney heralded the start of a new era, and England’s all-time leading goalscorer became the only talking point following the announcement. The morality of the club was again called into question due to the reported involvement of their main sponsors, a betting company, in helping to engineer the deal.
Rooney has dealt with his demons during the course of his career, and has spoken candidly about his past since returning to England with the Rams. His stint in the States appears to have cleared his head, and there is a new maturity about his game that Derby County are set to benefit from.
But Rooney’s influence at Derby County extends beyond his ability on the ball. One of the highest-profile players to ever play in the Championship given his goalscoring record for Manchester United and England, his presence alone has forced others in the team to raise their game.
Every member of the squad will be familiar with Rooney’s career achievements, and human nature dictates that they would want to impress him. Handing him the captaincy raised eyebrows, but the reality of the situation is that it is very much deserved. To formally appoint him as the leader in the side could prove to be an inspired decision.
Every player in the squad will know that Rooney would judge them on first impressions, and it is no coincidence that results made a marked improvement upon his arrival at Pride Park. While Rooney will see Derby County as a stepping-stone in his coaching career, he will also appreciate that this is a new chapter for him, and that his past achievements will count for little if he cannot deliver in his new role.
Combining his coaching education with the final years of his playing career will be a bonus, and his impressive start suggests he has embraced this new and unfamiliar environment.
On the eve of his January debut, the side won for only the second time in 10 games. It was their first win in five weeks. Rooney captained the side to another victory over Barnsley on his debut a couple of days later, and they have now won three of their last five games with him in the side.
The 4-0 win over Stoke City last Friday was by far their most convincing victory, and Rooney's midfield influence was a clear catalyst in the performance. But an unforgiving fixture list makes finding consistency in the Championship difficult, and at 34 years of age, it is inevitable that Rooney will need a break before the season comes to an end.
The maturity of Rooney
It was during his time at DC United that Rooney showed a new side to his character, and with it an appreciation that if he is to move into coaching and management, then the hard work had to start immediately.
It would have been easy for him to wind down in Major League Soccer, and his ability would have ensured he would still have done enough to perform at an acceptable level. However, his respect for his team and the league extended beyond doing the basics on the field, and he accepted that he would need to make the same sacrifices as his teammates in terms of travel and accommodation around fixtures.
The collective environment of playing for DC United took Rooney outside of his comfort zone, and it also served as perfect preparation for adapting to life in the Championship. He will have missed a few home comforts despite the obvious perks of playing on the other side of the Atlantic, but he has already shown that his newfound maturity has not regressed.
Rooney's credibility as a coach will be formed on the impression he creates for himself at Derby County. This will be as testing a challenge as any he has had to face during the course of his incredible career.Published 04 Feb 2020, 02:47 IST